Friday, May 01, 2009

The Inseparable Relationship Between Politics, Art and Culture

At the Betty Burke show at This Ain't the Rosedale Library on Wednesday and met co-proprietor Charlie Huisken for the first time. He's been following many of my online projects and comlimented me on my mix of arts, culture and politics. The thing is I don't really know how you separate them.

I know the whole chicken v. egg argument - does life imitate art or vice versa. As far as I can tell though it works like this: art generally emerges from subcultures of various sizes. If it is engaging and based on ideas that resonate the sub-culture around it grows and begins to have an influence on the broader culture. In the 20th century you can see examples of this in jazz, blues, rock and roll and punk. Each started in a subculture, grew that subculture and then was adopted by and had an influence on the larger culture.

With the art comes social and political ideas (certainly all of the musical schools I listed above had a broad influence on culture and politics.) By the time they become popular in the broad culture the new art and the ideas that come with it have been watered down to an extent, but the influence is still there. This is not only the case with music. Film, literature, television and even comedy (Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Jon Stewart ...) all had profound effects on culture in the 20th century and most new schools in each of these went through the same process: sub-culture to mass culture (with appropriate watering down.)

As with anything in the arts it's effect on culture, society and politics cannot be quantified, but 100 years ago we lived in a culture where racism was acceptable - now we live in a culture where it is not, but before there was a Martin Luther King, a Malcolm X or a Barack Obama there was blues and jazz which re-introduced people of European descent to people of african descent through the arts and made it increasingly more difficult to stereotype or hate.

If you go through the progress made in the 20th century a similar pattern emerges on almost every issue. It is hard to imagine the social reforms of the 1930s, or women's rights, or gay rights (we're not there yet but things are getting better), or environmentalism, or the peace movement, or the anti-cuclear movement or any one of a score of progressive victories happening without the ideas emerging from, and the support offered by the arts.

I should also note that by 'progressive' I do not mean any particular group or party. To me 'progressive' is that which makes the world a better place for everyone. One thing I think the 'me generation' got wrong is this: I believe that a person who seeks to make the world a better place for everyone makes the world a better place for him/herself. A person who seeks to make the world a better place only for him/herself makes the world a better place for no-one.

So this explains not only my view on the relationship between art, culture and politics but also the reason for my particular political point of view.

A political leader or party's support for the arts is directly related to their openness to new ideas. Conservatism is, by definition, the opposite of creativity. Creativity explores, it seeks progress, it challenges conventions and institutions - Conservatism is opposed to and in many cases offended by all of these things.

So, when Conservatives claim to support the "arts", to "like music" etc., they are invariably talking about entertainment more than art. When asked for examples they will give the names of musicians, authors, filmmakers and others whose work brings with it a minimum of creativity, or that is old enough so as to not be threatening (or challenging) any longer. If you look at 'artists' who support the Republicans in the U.S. it's a collection of bad actors and derivative musicians. It is also recently acceptable for conservatives to claim that they like 'jazz' now that it is no longer acceptable for them to be openly racist.

If you are a creative artists, you are a progressive and therefore not a conservative. If you are a political progressive you must support the arts because that is the medium by which progressive ideas are introduced to the larger culture, as far as I know this has been the case since we lived in caves.

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